When Social Media Become a Pillory

Ridiculed on the Net
Ridiculed on the Net | Photo (detail): © Colourbox

Many children and young people are persecuted by attacks on the Internet. Parents are alarmed, teachers and scientists seeking means of prevention.

When children in Germany ring the number 116 111, they are usually in great distress. At the “Kids and Youth Helpline” (“Nummer gegen Kummer”, or literally: “Number against Distress”), they are given anonymous assistance. On an average of one to two times a day, the calls specifically concern cyberbullying: in 2013, the central telephone counselling service for Germany recorded 495 cases. The stories that the helpers hear are similar. Not infrequently the bullying begins offline, then spills over onto the Internet and there escalates. “Perpetrators and copy-cats ring in over the phone”, says Nina Pirk, a staff member of the Kids and Youth Helpline. “Many seek only a short revenge and put something on the Net out of anger or inadvertently. Only in retrospect are the consequences brought home to them.”

Cyberbullying, known in Germany by the term “cybermobbing”, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Since smartphones and laptops have conquered the children’s room, communication with peers has become possible anytime and anywhere. This has disadvantages. Quarrels, power struggles and teasing, as occur in every schoolyard, can now be shifted at any time to the Net. There, they sometimes take on dramatic proportions – also because the audience is larger and the technical possibilities more multifarious. Cyberbullying knows many variations: harassment, insults, spreading rumours, hacking user profiles, threats of violence.

Embarrassing photos for all to see

Ways to fight back, on the other hand, are limited. According to the Study Jugend, Information, Multimedia 2013 (i.e. Youth, Information, Multimedia; JIM Study, published by the Media Education Research Association Southwest, an institution of State Media Authorities of Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg), which investigated the use of media by adolescents and young adults between the ages of twelve and 19, twelve per cent of all respondents had already experienced falsehoods about them being circulated on the Net. About 20 per cent said that embarrassing pictures of themselves have been published without their consent. And nearly one third confirmed that someone in their circle of acquaintances has been lambasted over the mobile or the Internet.

Media regularly report about teenagers who have been attacked or taunted on the Internet. Parents’ fear that this could be directed against their own child is widespread. In 2013 the association “Alliance against Cyberbullying” carried out a study on the subject. The result: few parents feel adequately informed and supported. They want more information especially from the schools.

At the same time, much has happened in the past few years. Dozens of pilot projects have been launched and workshops and project days taken place at schools. In North Rhine-Westphalia, the Federal Insurance Fund for Miners, together with the German Child Protection League, has founded the project “Firewall Live”, which gives media courses for children and parents. In Berlin, researchers at the Freie Universität have developed the training programme “Media Heroes”. But the demand is everywhere greater than the supply. And many projects are funded only on a short-term basis.

Many approaches, no central structures

There are no central structures for the prevention of cyberbullying in federally organized Germany, nor any binding standards, such as a scientific evaluation, for the quality assurance of relevant approaches. The psychologist Anja Schultze-Krumbholz, who took part in the Berlin project Media Heroes and has long done research in the area, thinks this problematic: “Every school social worker at every school has developed something on cyberbullying, but no one knows exactly how effective it is”. In the worst case, she says, they end up inadvertently showing students “how they can bully more effectively”. Schultze-Krumbholz together with other scientists is currently advising the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth on the creation of a Germany-wide contact point for Internet risks.

In addition to the tips and information already available on the Internet, there is a further element of preventive work: young people are themselves trained to be helpers. Often the victims’ threshold of anxiety about turning to adults for assistance is considerable. “They are afraid that then everything will become even more public, that perhaps they’ll even have to go before the class and explain everything”, says Nina Pirk. Or that the panicked parents will immediately seek to get in touch with the parents of the perpetrators. This too is extremely unpleasant for the victims: “They see it as a further loss of control when parents or teachers act against their will”.

Students in upper forms are therefore sometimes a better contact point. In the federal state of Hesse, a team consisting of media educators and sociologists trained young people to be “digital heroes” who become active at their schools as mentors. In other federal states, State Media Authorities fund so-called “Mediascout” programmes. Here older students, who have gone through a course of training, sensitize younger one to the dangers of cyberbullying. “Think first before you post” – this is their most important message.